Gender work is often separated from what is considered real work. It is seen as an add-on or a commitment for those who are seen to be most affected by it – namely women and gender minorities. However, gender is an essential part of understanding roles, behaviour, and the beliefs that we all hold about the capabilities of different gender identities. Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, and gender minorities that are socially conditioned into our understanding of what ‘normal’ life is. Gender differs from one society to the next, but a thread that is similar across different countries is that it allocates power and produces inequalities. Patriarchy is the system that causes these inequalities as it enforces the dominance of men over women in institutions and society more broadly. Without sustained efforts to address patriarchy, gender inequality will remain and will continue to exclude women and gender minorities from participating in the workplace fully and from nurturing their capabilities.
On the African continent, patriarchy has a colonial history in which indigenous patriarchal systems merged with the colonial patriarchal system, which now has formed the type of patriarchy that we experience today. Historically, gender relations were different. This means power was allocated differently and there was more fluidity in gender roles.
We have taken on this patriarchal system that is connected to our colonial past as the ‘normal’ way of life, when in fact it is connected to other ills in society and is imported. Gender is connected to its sibling’s capitalism, racism, ageism, and religious and ethnic division which all determine who is given power and who is disempowered. Intersectionality is a tool that was introduced by a Black feminist, Kimberlee Crenshaw, that supports self-awareness of our privileges, our disempowerment, and our capabilities. We all have a responsibility to change how power oppresses, excludes, and produces inequalities both in the workplace and in our private lives. The personal is political, and so gender work is a life-long commitment to unlearning oppressive beliefs and adopting new working methods and institutional changes for gender equality.
It is useful to understand the problem, but what does change look like? Gender transformation is both an individual and institutional shift. The new Gender Equality Changemakers Programme, introduced by the Digital Frontiers in 2021, builds the capacity needed to address the problem and creates a lasting solution by professionalising gender work. Gender work is indeed real work. The programme offers a professional certification to highly skilled professionals that will address the gender inequalities and discrimination in the workplace and become ‘Gender Equality Changemakers’.
As the Deputy Director and Gender Lead for the Programme, I had the privilege of being part of the first cohort of Gender Equality Changemakers. As a result of DFI staffs participation in the course, DFI has become even more invested in achieving gender equality internally and with all its products and services externally. The first cohort had an overall enrolment of 222 students that came from 28 different African countries. There are large constituencies from the East African region, Southern Africa, and West Africa. 53% come from the private sector, while 27% are from the development sector and 20% are in the public sector.
The Programme has been commended for its work and influence by WomeninDev, FinEquity and FSD Africa, which has helped the program attract more professionals for the second cohort -which is much larger. This is the start of institutional change, and students have been given the mantle to lead gender change in their respective organisations. The type of capacity building tailored by DFI provides continued professional development through our communities of practice, which have had several in-country meetings that contextualise the learning material to suit the social, economic, and political realities of different African countries. These communities of practice support the material, the development of alumni, professional bodies, and the League of Gender Equality Changemakers on LinkedIn. Our community of practice facilitators have been a huge part of the success of this programme, which three of them graduating as Gender Equality Changemakers.
As our first cohort prepares for graduation, I want to thank our faculty from the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria for their dedication and for insisting on understanding the depth of gender work so that our students are equipped to deal with challenges and setbacks and have the tools to accelerate change in organisational culture, policy, practices, products, and services in their respective organisations. May the work of achieving gender equality never lose its flame!